Theater Review: Miss Evers’ Boys

David Feldshuh’s dramatization of the infamous Tuskegee Experiment receives a dazzling revival in a tiny New York theater.

David Feldshuh's Miss Evers' Boys has been around for 17 years, most notably in its 1997 Emmy-winning TV adaptation. But in the current production by the Red Fern Theatre Company it still feels as fresh as a spring rain.

The dazzling cast has something to do with this. Their superb performances, under the more than able direction of Melanie Moyer Williams, flesh out the disturbing story that Mr. Feldshuh's script tells so achingly.

Beginning in 1932, a government program which became known as the infamous Tuskegee experiment subjected a group of syphilitic African-American men in Alabama to a cruel study. Told they were being treated for their "bad blood," they were in fact denied treatment. The crude medicines of the time — and later, more egregiously, the lifesaving new drug penicillin — were withheld from the men, so doctors could study the ravages of the disease over time and determine whether blacks and whites were affected the same way.

Given this nightmarish scenario, with its numerous victims and its overtones of eugenics, the script is remarkably evenhanded. Feldshuh's central insight was to focus on the character of Eunice Evers, a selfless nurse who, believing she is doing her best for the men, wins their trust and cares for them through their years of illness and suffering. Framing the action, which takes place at the outset of the study and then fourteen years later, are snatches of Nurse Evers' testimony before Congress in 1972 when the whole horrid affair came to light.

Played with the utmost grace by Nedra McClyde, who was excellent in Victor Woo and TBA and gets a well-deserved central role here, Nurse Evers initially trusts the doctors running the study. She is so strongly animated by her calling that she never starts a family of her own; the men become her charges, and she comes to love them dearly. But as Nurse Evers loses faith and the anguish of her inner conflict grows, Ms. McClyde makes us feel both utter sorrow and powerful admiration for the character.

Though the racial attitudes depicted in the play are no longer dominant in our culture, the play remains vivid because its underlying themes are timeless. Conflicting loyalties and man's inhumanity to man never go out of style. Miss Evers' Boys More specifically, evidence of our nation's painful racial history lingers everywhere.  The play also has many old-fashioned virtues that have retained their effectiveness since the dawn of theater: lots of drama, painful scenes, funny ones, and colorful characters with complex personalities and distinct, sometimes exaggerated traits.

There's the sharp, mistrustful rebel, the high-spirited hoofer with dreams of stardom, the superstitious farmer quailing before the march of progress, and the illiterate elder with homespun wisdom. Played respectively by Garrett Lee Hendricks, Jason Donnell Bush, Marty Austin Lamar, and veteran David Pendleton, these men suffer separately and together through scenes of excruciating "treatment," joyful song and dance, agonizing decision-making, abnegation, struggle, and occasionally grace. They're a terrific ensemble, and each has beautifully-played individual scenes as well. The doctors too, both white and black, are, like Miss Evers, complicated people, dedicated professionals who believe they are doing right. They just can't see (in the case of the white doctor, played by Alex C. Ferrill), or overcome (in the case of the black doctor, played by the imposing Evander Duck), the twistedness of the situation in which they find themselves.

The stars seem to have aligned for this production: excellent actors perfectly cast, with a director who knows just how to seize on the strengths of Feldshuh's scenecraft. The show may be a little slow going at a few points and unnecessarily heavy on the pathos at the end, but the brilliant talent collected here has no trouble wiping the floor with these minor flaws. This Miss Evers' Boys is a triumph. It plays Thursdays through Sundays through April 5 at the Shell Theatre in the Times Square Arts Center, 300 W. 43 St. Tickets at Ovation Tix online or call 212-352-3101. A portion of the proceeds from this Red Fern Theatre Company production goes to benefit the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation. Photo by Nathan Johnson.

Theater Review: The Cambria by Donal O’Kelly

Frederick Douglass’s 1845 voyage to Ireland becomes a richly fictionalized tale of colorful figures and high drama at sea.

In 1845 Frederick Douglass, already a famed abolitionist though not yet 30, sailed for Europe aboard a ship called the Cambria. Fleeing hostile forces in the United States who were making his activities difficult (to say the least), he received a hero's welcome in Ireland from crowds of sympathetic, long-suffering Irish Catholics familiar with his career and his recently published autobiography.

Douglass spent six months in Ireland, finding there the morale boost he needed to continue his crusade. I spent an hour and a half at the Irish Arts Center in New York on St. Patrick's day, getting my first taste of Donal O'Kelly's work. The Cambria concerns not Douglass's time in Europe but the ocean voyage itself. He and director Raymond Keane bring it to life as a richly fictionalized tale of colorful figures and high drama at sea. Embodied by Mr. O'Kelly and Sorcha Fox — both superb actors — these people are by turns amusing, inspiring, and a little scary.

Some of the characters are more faceted than others. Mr. O'Kelly's Douglass, always calm and dignified, is (no pun intended) the least "colorful" of all, the quiet eye at the center of the storm. His power is all in his words, but they are all he needs, some written for him by the playwright, others taken directly from Douglass's own eloquent works. Yet he's not without complexity; sent down to steerage when his first-class neighbor complains about the proximity of a black man, he observes, without sore indignation, "I feel at home among the mishmash of nationalities."

More violent personalities dance around him. A lively abolitionist, given a pitch-perfect American accent by Ms. Fox, is insufferably righteous. Ms. Fox also depicts a delightful little girl who refuses to believe that her new friend "Mr. Johnson" (Douglass incognito) is not a minstrel. She also plays male characters with complete conviction.

The skipper, the rueful son of a slave ship captain, has an evocative and gloriously staged (if perhaps not quite earned) Act Two revelation. A Southern slaveholder, also played by Mr. O'Kelly, makes an effective villain; if I were ignorant of American history I'd accuse the playwright of creating a caricature, but alas, the plantation owner's blind paternalism and cruelty were all too endemic; his descent into seething animal hatred feels both comical and real on a level deeper than realism.

Mr. O'Kelly's language is worthy of the mantle of the great Irish dramatists of the past — warm, poetic, funny, pained, sprightly yet always faintly weighted, but never bitter. "Never been at sea? You must have been mighty contented with your life on land." "Imagine not knowing your birthday." "Beware the Quaker choir ladies."

This play provides one of those concentrated, magical experiences one hopes for every time one takes one's seat in a theater. The Cambria had a limited run through Sunday, March 22 at the Donaghy Theatre at the Irish Arts Center in New York City.

Theater Review: Tartuffe

Molière's Tartuffe is not one of those classic plays that need a lot of exegesis for the benefit of contemporary audiences. Though it dates from the 1660s, its vivid characters, uproarious humor, and theme of hypocrisy and scamming remain thoroughly understandable across the centuries. Nevertheless, many adaptations and "modernizations" that go beyond mere translation have been created and produced for English-speaking audiences, some in prose, some in rhyming verse like the original French. Richard Wilbur, Christopher Hampton, and many others have tried their hands.

Jeff Cohen's new rhyming-verse version is set in America during the Great Depression. His program notes relate this choice to the present economic crisis and in particular the breathtakingly audacious confidence men, like Bernie Madoff, who've had their part in it. I'd argue that Tartuffe's scheming is more akin to a different type of confidence game, that of the televangelists. Either way, though, the game is to separate a gull from his money (and/or position), not necessarily by lying to him, but always by taking advantage of one of his innate character traits, whether greed, insecurity, or something else.

Either way, too, Tartuffe is a play for our time, wherever and whenever one sets it, and Mr. Cohen understands this. His verse is primarily conversational, but it is elevated where it needs to be (as in some of Tartuffe's flowery outbursts, Tartuffe and the speeches of the prim, moralizing Cléante, mincingly portrayed by Brian Linden, who was so wickedly foppish in The Country Wife two years ago) — elevated, however, not into self-conscious poetics, but into the tones and rhythms of high comedy, especially American comedy, the line that runs from vaudeville through the great TV sitcoms of the 1950s.

To "fund" his vision of the play, Mr. Cohen, who also directed, has at hand an embarrassment of riches in the form of a superb cast. The production's publicity stresses the presence of Christina DeCicco, who plays Elmire, the sexy young wife of Orgon, Tartuffe's central victim. Ms. DeCicco is indeed excellent: agile, beautiful, and delightfully funny, she even gets to show off her singing voice in one hilarious moment (she played Glinda in the national tour of Wicked and it's no wonder).

But she is matched by the two male leads, Keith Buterbaugh as Orgon and the rubber-faced Tom Ford in the title role, and by Deanna Henson as the fiery maid Dorine, who is actually the household glue. Ms. Henson's command of the speedy verbosity required of her by Mr. Cohen's gushing script and rapid pacing is most impressive. Mr. Ford's Tartuffe is truly demonic — he's the very model of duplicity, utterly qualm-free about his plot to take control of his mark's fortunes, and equally bald-faced in his lust for Elmire even as he gleefully looks forward to marrying Orgon's lisping daughter Marianne.

Katia Asche plays Marianne as a pretend-innocent with a flair for emotional manipulation — one comes to feel that in different circumstances, she'd make a good female Tartuffe-in-training, though unlike that master manipulator, she is capable of love. Her paramour, the mock-heroic Valère (Rob Maitner), is funny and even a little touching, riding to the rescue in his preppy sweater. Susan Jeffries is exquisite as the hapless family matriarch, and Mr. Buterbaugh portrays her son, Orgon, as so willfully blind to Tartuffe's maleficence that we gape in amused horror. Tartuffe2 Ably representing righteous indignation is Aaron Costa Ganis as Orgon's wronged, stuttering son Damis, while Jasper Soffer makes a properly snooty Bailiff.

Mr. Cohen makes good use of the high, boxy space of @Seaport! with its big staircase; the effective, pastel set is by Alex Distler, while a couple of Anne E. Grosz's perfectly pitched period costumes are almost characters in themselves. Trying hard, I can squeeze out a small complaint about what seem to be references to Giuliani-Bloomberg era New York in the final scene with the Cop (Mark DeFrancis) — more concern for cops than the poor, etc. — but I'm reaching.

Speaking of cops and robbers, it's almost criminal that you only have to pay off-off-Broadway prices for the level of talent on display here. Go quickly, there are too few performances and not many seats at each.

Tartuffe runs through March 29 at @Seaport!, 210 Front St., across from South Street Seaport, NYC. Presented by Dog Run Rep. Tickets at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.

Photos by Erica Parise. 1) Tom Ford as Tartuffe and Deanna Henson as Dorine. 2) Christina DeCicco as Elmire and Keith Buterbaugh as Orgon.

Theater Review: Figaro/Figaro

This extended Figar-anza with music is an exercise in extremes and an interesting concept. Unfortunately, half is also an ordeal.

Two Figaros for one low off-off-Broadway price — sounds like a good deal, right? Playwright Eric Overmyer adapted and concatenated Beaumarchais' original Marriage of Figaro (the play on which the famous Mozart opera is based) and a rather dark 20th century sequel, Figaro Gets a Divorce, into one extended Figar-anza — with music. It's a long night, an exercise in extremes, and an interesting concept. Unfortunately, half is also an ordeal.

In the 1930s, the German-language playwright Ödön von Horváth wrote a time-transposed sequel to The Marriage of Figaro. In Figaro Gets a Divorce, the Count, the Countess, the steward Figaro, and his wife Susanna have fled a 20th century Communist revolution into an efficiently run, unnamed but Germanic-style neighboring country. While the fallen Count enters a downward spiral of gambling and depression, Figaro returns to barbering in a small town. But marital issues and conflicting ideals push the barber and Susanna apart, and she ends up alone, waitressing in a cafe.

Transporting Beaumarchais' colorful characters, who are more emblematic than realistic, into a modern, bourgeois, somber-hued world, exploring what happens to the fallen nobility, and examining how the various servant characters at home and abroad might retain or transfer their loyalties is an interesting idea. But either von Horváth's play is very bad, or it has been adapted very badly.

Knowing a bit of Eric Overmyer's work, and judging from the high quality of his adaptation of the Marriage, which forms the first act of this production, I suspect the fault to lie with von Horváth's original work. (I was not familiar with it prior to this production.) Once the characters are situated in their new universe and some parameters are established, the story, such as it is, flies every which way. Each scene seems a disconnected vignette, and we quickly cease to care about those once-lovable characters. The political philosophy that gets poured on doesn't make up for it; it's facile and not effectively dramatized.  On top of all that, inexpertly played music and some goofy costume choices make a poorly conceived work seem poorly executed as well.

That's a pity, because, with nimble help from director Erin Smiley, Mr. Overmyer begins the evening with a clever, cheery, mostly well-played, compressed telling of the original late 18th century play, adorned with musical themes from Mozart's famous opera. The music comes from supporting cast members who double on an assortment of instruments, marching in and out, annoying the main characters — it's silly but quite funny.

More important, the leads are solid. Teddy Alvaro makes a witty and energetic (if a little too modern-ironic) Figaro, Ralph Petrarca a wry and funny Count Almaviva, and Kathryn Elisabeth Lawson a spry and winsome Cherubino.  Gillian Wiggin's Susanna is especially delightful; in this telling she bears the greatest dramatic weight, along with her share of the comic, and does it wonderfully well.  She alone makes the dreadful second half faintly bearable.

Fortunately, at off-off-Broadway prices, you will get your money's worth just from the first half. It's a minor tour de force of distilled, manic storytelling, expertly directed and nicely played. As for what Stephen King might call the evening's "dark half," enough said.

Through March 22 at the 14th Street Theater, 344 W. 14 St, NYC. Staged by the (re:) Directions Theatre Company. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.

Four Finger John

Free music!

Slowly but surely our new Whisperado CD project is progressing. This will be our first full-length recording, with a song count in the double digits! We’ll finish recording later this spring, and soon after that we’ll have a hot little product ready for download – and even available on old-fashioned plastic discs in break-y transparent jewel boxes!

But in the meantime, during a lull in the Whisperado recording process I went to Tom White’s studio in Schoharie County in upstate New York music and recorded three acoustic songs: a very tardy tribute to the late John Entwistle of the Who, a (seasonally speaking) very early Christmas song, and a folksy version of “Hand-Me-Down.” So it’s not really an album – more like an extended single, or a really short EP. Whatever you want to call it, it’s yours free – email me at music / at / whisperado / dot / com for the link to download the songs.

Theater Review: The Question House

What if there were a house in which only questions could be spoken?

What if there were a house in which only questions could be spoken? Does that sound, well, Jewish? What if I told you that the premise is that Harvey Krytz (Howard Green) had a rabbinical vision some 40 years ago, and has operated out of these mystical quarters ever since? Wouldn't you agree that he might need young assistants?

But wouldn't it be hard for them to remember the questions-only rule, or to resist rebelling against it? And then wouldn't they then suffer an unpleasantly biblical fate?

Could it be that this show is pretty much just an extended comedy skit? Then again, if it's fresh, crisply paced, and doesn't overstay its welcome, what's wrong with an extended comedy skit? How could Mr. Green, along with Cam Kornman (who plays his long-suffering helper, Margaret), be anything but delightful? And could they ask for support more solid than that provided by the funny Nick DeSimone as an unfortunate job applicant, and the glorious Snezhana Chernova as a defiant aide? theater (Is it disconcerting to see a character called "Miss Bingham" played by an actress with a Russian accent? Well, haven't you already figured out that this play is, after all, an exercise in absurdity?)

Does Ms. Chernova have a fan club? If so, can I join?

When you get right down to it, isn't it all about the fun playwright Tara Dairman has with the constant tension (and the humor) engendered by her conceit? Who'll slip up? Who'll escape from the Question House? Will we? Will you?

Can you find time to see The Question House before the Frigid Festival ends on March 8? Will you believe me when I say that you'll have a fun time?

(I couldn't be the first reviewer of The Question House to review it "in kind," could I? Does it matter? In any case, how'm I doing?